On Fox News last week, Tom DeLay, the former Texas congressman, unleashed a string of attacks on John McCain, saying the presidential candidate "has done more to hurt the Republican Party than any elected official I know of." Beginning with the landmark campaign-finance-reform legislation McCain shepherded in with Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, DeLay said, the Arizona Senator "has completely neutered the Republican party. [He] has violated the Constitution, has undermined our ability to participate in campaigns in an open and honest way. He has teamed up with the most liberal Democrats in the Senate." DeLay, himself responsible for a fair amount of damage to the GOP due to his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, decried McCain's surging presidential chances because the candidate has "fought the Republican Party in everything that we've done."
Along with DeLay, a large segment of the GOP elite can't stand McCainand now that he's become the front-runner in the Republican presidential race, everyone from George Will to Rick Santorum to Michelle Malkin are taking out the knives.
Die-hard conservatives despise McCain for multiple reasons. Primarily, they fear the impact his candidacy could have on the Republican Party and the conservative movement. For conservatives, derailing McCain's candidacy is not about electability, but ideological protection. As conservative writer and activist Robert Tracinski put it this week in an article titled "Why McCain Needs to Be Stopped," "McCain is a suicidal choice for Republicans, because on every issue other than the war, he stands for capitulation to the left." And conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt recently said a "GOP vote for McCain is a vote for a shattered base."
Conservatives also feel that McCain has routinely frustrated their ambitions by taking heretical policy stances. "Almost at every turn on domestic policy," Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, said in a recent radio interview, "John McCain was not only against us, but leading the charge on the other side." Just a day earlier Santorum had gone on a different radio show as part of his anti-McCain jihad and attacked the senator on a variety of issues. "Hes not with us on almost all of the core issues," he said. "He was against the President's tax cuts. He was bad on immigration. On the environment, he's absolutely terrible. He buys into the complete left-wing environmentalist movement in this country. He is for bigger government on a whole laundry list of issues."
"We'd of had a much bigger tax cut if John McCain had voted with us," said DeLay on Fox. "We'd be drilling in ANWR [Artic National Wildlife Refuge] today" if not for McCain.
Michelle Malkin gets riled up by McCain's position on immigration. "After spearheading a disastrous, security-undermining, illegal-alien amnesty bill last year with Teddy Kennedy, 'straight-talking' GOP Sen. John McCain claims he has seen the light," she wrote Wednesday. But McCain can't be believed, she argued, because his credibility is "fatally damaged." In truth, McCain is just waiting for the chance to play conservatives for suckers. When he does, he'll give progressives "cover to continue smearing grassroots conservatives."
And nothing seems to irritate conservatives more than the fact that the "liberal" media, through supposedly adoring and unquestioning coverage, let McCain get away with this laundry list of crimes. On Monday, George Will wrote:
Because Mr. McCain is a "maverick"the media encomium reserved for Republicans who reject important Republican principleshe would be a conciliatory president. Mr. McCain is, however, an unlikely conciliator because he is quick to denigrate the motives, and hence the characters, of those who oppose him....
In the New Hampshire debate, Mr. McCain asserted that corruption is the reason drugs cannot be reimported from Canada. The reason is "the power of the pharmaceutical companies." When Mitt Romney interjected, "Don't turn the pharmaceutical companies into the big bad guys," Mr. McCain replied, "Well, they are."
There is a place in American politics for moralizers who think in such Manichaean simplicities. That place is in the Democratic Party.
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, agrees that McCain has gotten a free pass. "Other candidates who change their positions on important issues are described as 'flip-floppers,' but John McCain is viewed as that rare politician whose views on important issues have 'matured' over the years," he wrote recently. "From taxes to his relationship with social conservatives and his position on Second Amendment or 'gun' issues, McCain has shown an unending willingness to do just what he so self-righteously accuses others of doingtailoring his position to suit his needs of the moment."
All of these attacks have forced McCain to take to the airwaves to defend his record, which he says is conservative enough to match "anybody who is running." Yet the voters don't seem terribly concerned by McCain's transgressions against conservative orthodoxy: after all, he has won more contested* primaries than any other GOP candidate. He has prevailed by emphasizing his national security credentials and by adopting a fiscally conservative message. (According to exit polls, he has attracted voters who prioritize terrorism and Iraq, as well as those who prioritize the economy.) But more important than any part of his message, McCain has won by appealing to independents, who carried him to victory in New Hampshire and South Carolina. McCain actually lost narrowly amongst self-identified Republicans in both states.
But McCain's independent appeal could pose a problem in the upcoming Florida primary and on Super Tuesday, when over 20 states hold primaries or caucuses. Unlike New Hampshire and South Carolina, which have open Republican primaries that allow independents to vote, Florida and many of the major Super Tuesday states have closed primaries that are limited to registered Republicans only.
If McCain wins in Florida, the conservative leaders who are already up in arms about his candidacy will have to conclude that they are out of step with their constituents, or that party members have been successfully snake-charmed by a man they despise. If that's the case, the conservative backlash against McCain has barely begun.
*This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that McCain has won more contested primaries (NH, SC). Romney has won more primaries total because of his victories in two uncontested states (NV, WY).